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Thread: Comics Editors Are Like A Box of Chocolates

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    Comics Editors Are Like A Box of Chocolates

    Funny you should mention comics editors.

    A hand goes up.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “Nobody said anything about comics editors,” you note.

    “No?” I ask. “Then perhaps I had a dream of writers chaffing at the bit, fomenting revolution, and muttering time-honored American battle cries like Don’t Tread On Me.

    Actually, I had an interesting chat with a writer, and the role of the editor as part of the comics-creation process came up, and I was inspired.

    A hand goes up.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “It sounds like you’re going defend yourself,” you observe.

    “I’m going to explain how an editor legitimately contributes to the process,” I answer.

    And the first thing I want to explain is that not all editors should be tarred with the same brush.

    “We can tar them with different brushes?” you ask.

    Hmmmm, I ponder, somebody’s been taking too many humor pills.

    Just to make a point, let’s start by putting the shoe on the other hoof.

    How many writers are great writers?

    No hands go up.

    That’s right, only a small percentage of writers are great writers.

    Should we judge the ideal contribution of comics writers to the finished book by the work of the good ones or the bad ones?

    No hands go up.

    Yeah, it was a rhetorical question, and the answer is obvious.

    Now, when discussing editors, do you typically discuss the potential for their ideal contribution or how they’re just frustrated writers who don’t understand what you do?

    I’ll answer this one: too often it’s the latter and not the former. Why do you think that is?

    A hand slowly inches above a sea of perplexed expressions.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “I think we tend to complain about somebody telling us what to do,” you respond honestly.

    “Do you get a sense how an editor’s direction helps your book get better?” I query.

    “Not yet,” you reply. I note the forward thrust of your clenched jaw.

    “Do you think a good editor should help make your book the best possible version of your vision?” I ask, setting you up.

    “Absolutely!” you exclaim, not seeing the set-up.

    “Then shouldn’t a discussion about the potential for editorial oversight be based on editors who do their jobs well, instead of editors who don’t do their jobs well?” I ask, bringing the topic full circle.

    “Um…” you respond, realizing you’re trapped. “For a discussion about the potential contribution of an editor, yes,” you admit, with legitimate qualification.

    That’s right, there are a lot of bad comics editors, and I could start naming names, tell stories, and not stop for about a week.

    But there are a lot of good comics editors, too, and their contribution to your work could go a long way towards helping you become a better comics creator.

    In 2006, during a program at Comic-con International, a panel of editors unanimously agreed: a good editor helps creators fulfill their vision.

    That still holds true.

    But there’s more to it, a lot more, because creators aren’t mind readers.

    Comics editors need to possess a high level of craft, or they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Comics editors need to be able to schedule, or they don’t know how a book is really progressing, and they’ll panic only after it’s too late to still produce good work.

    Comics editors need to be flexible to the potential for talent to produce their best possible work, and that requires an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all the available processes. If editors don’t know the range of possibilities for how creators work, then they don’t know how to play to their strengths; it’s that simple.

    Comics editors need to be able to communicate.

    Comics editors need to be able to identify or clarify aesthetic and commercial goals, so everybody understands and works toward a mutual objective. To clarify, where the comics editor needs to embrace a creator’s vision, then the editor also needs to be able to define that vision, get the creator to agree to it, thereby creating a standard by which he or she can evaluate the work. On the other hand, where the comics editor needs to convey a company vision, he or she still needs to be able to define that vision, get the creator to understand it, thereby creating a standard by which he or she can evaluate the work. Where’s the advantage in this? It sidesteps the issue of an editor making changes simply because that’s what he or she wants to do, or would write it that way themselves. This makes it about the editor helping to direct all aspects of the creative toward the vision that’s been agreed to.

    Comics editors need to be able to identify where work jumps the tracks, and offer a range of options available for it to get back on.

    Comics editors need to be facilitators, not dictators, even where they have the final say.

    This is an ideal.

    Some comics editors are great because they have a great Rolodex of talent, talent who, when left alone, will do just fine with minimal supervision.

    Some comics editors are great because they have a fresh vision for tired material, and can find and direct creators to work to that vision.

    Some comics editors are great because they can identify new talent and help them reach their potential.

    There are so many different ways comics editors excel, and fail to excel.

    Yes, some comics editors are just looking for a stepping stone to their own writing career.

    Yes, some comics editors are control freaks who expect you to read their minds.

    Yes, some comics editors don’t know enough about what they’re doing, and will consistently hang talent out to dry for their own incompetency.

    Comics editors are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.

    So what can a comics creator do about this?

    Well, we’re already doing it. We’re pegging the strengths and weaknesses so we’ll know ‘em when we see ‘em.

    Rather than shying away from editors on general principles because you don’t like to be “told what to do,” consider interviewing your potential editor, asking them about their process, what they love about comics and working with creators.

    Find out how well they fit with you.

    But here’s what’s important, what’s really important: be careful.

    Don’t let them know you’re interviewing and evaluating them, even though you are.

    Don’t challenge their beliefs; probe them to discover their nature, and keep your observations to yourself.

    This is how you figure out how to work with somebody, whether they’re trying to figure out how to work with you or not.

    Sometimes you won’t have a choice, and you’re stuck with the worst one in the candy box. Still, if you’ve done your scouting well, you’ll know what flavor you’ve got, and you’ll have the best possible chance to make the most of the relationship.

    A hand goes up.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “How can we make the most of a relationship with the worst editor in the candy box?” you ask.

    “Good question. The answer is that even bad editors need to get their books finished, as well as they’ve determined and as on time as their supervisors require. The more you can help them the more they’re going to appreciate (as well as they can) your contribution.

    “When you know an editor is a poor communicator or scheduler, much of this responsibility falls on your shoulders…whether it’s fair or not.”

    “Because we’re going to get blamed for the screw-ups anyway?” you guess.

    “That’s right,” I answer. “You need to work defensively, communicate as well as you can, give the editor the best opportunities to have their say…and recognize that no matter how hard you try, the blame for whatever goes wrong can still come down on your head.

    “But it won’t be because you didn’t see it coming, and you’ll be as prepared for it as humanly possible.”

    A hand goes up.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “Do we have to work with an editor?” you ask.

    “Unless you’re fortunate enough to be among the most successful independent comics creators in the world and write your own ticket, yes.”

    Your hand goes down, as though sinking beneath the waves of hope.

    Essentially, you will need to work with editors, whether you like it or not, so you might as well learn to put on the best possible face and present the most optimistic demeanor. Also, it’s better that you develop all the knowledge and skills for it here, rather than on the firing line.

    So let’s share some war stories.

    To avoid this becoming a gripe session, I’d like you each to recount, within the context of the attributes I’ve described above, your best and worst comics editor stories.

    Just like our previous assignments, I’ll offer my two cents worth, so please work to frame the circumstances as well as possible. If an editor chose to rewrite entire passages of your script, then please note how that editor explained himself or herself, if at all. If an editor was especially good at identifying for you what your story was about, you need to share whether or not this was a revelation. I ask you to do your best to relate both sides of each story, so we have the best opportunity to learn from your experiences.

    If you feel there are other strengths and weaknesses I missed, please feel free to add them to the mix. The important thing is that you identify the attributes first so that we can share from your insight as to where you believe the editors succeeded or failed.

    I’d like you to avoid naming names, the names of the editors and the names of the books you worked on together. These stories stay on the web forever, and you just don’t want a story told today to haunt you tomorrow.

    Some years ago, I was cruising through Digital Webbing, and ran into a discussion about me, when I was working as an editor for the publisher who shall not be named.

    The writer made mention of my reasons for rejecting his book, and proceeded to point out the idiotic nature of these reasons.

    And the reasons he cited were idiotic…but they weren’t the reasons I gave. You see, I remembered this phone chat with the writer from several years before. I remembered the real reasons I gave him.

    So I made my first post on Digital Webbing in years, acknowledged the importance for a writer to find an editor who’d embrace his work, then corrected his version of the story and recounted my own reasons for why I’d rejected the story, which were quite different, less aesthetic and more practical and commercial.

    Suddenly there was a flood of support from other creators with whom I’d worked, and the writer was wise enough to keep his head down and not respond.

    And you can bet I never forgot what he posted.

    As I wrote, these things can come back to haunt you, so let’s not give them a chance to. Keep your stories on topic, but avoid specifics names and book titles.

    And, because I’ve worked with a few of you, let’s keep my name and our work together out of the discussion. (Tough luck Ronald, Danial, Rain, and Storme.)

    Let’s get to work.


    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (, a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.
    Last edited by LeeNordling; Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 03:01 PM.

  2. RonaldMontgomery Guest

    I REMEMBER that post...that was one of the first posts I read on Digital Webbing. It prompted me to email you and ask for advice on my AWESOME The Question comic I was making for getting into DC Comics.

    Oh yeah, let's not go any farther...!

    I have limited experience, but my best was pitching an editor on a story for the DW fairytale book. He absolutely hated the story. But he told me WHY he hated it, and he worked through the structural problems with me.
    I came to understand that editors have sensibilities, and I was lucky because ours were about half-attuned, which let me easily learn from him while still challenging me.

    The worst was an editor that liked my story so much they re-wrote it. No suggestions, or talking through things -- they re-wrote it and gave it back to me. That might work with some folks, but I was more interested in developing my own skills and telling my own story. We parted ways diplomatically and I never held ill will about the re-writes. Sometimes, you just have to say no.

    Lee, you're pretty easy to work with. You always have a reason for your decisions, which I respect. I still make the same dumb mistakes with you, but that's my problem. Ha ha!

  3. LeeNordling Guest

    Thanks, Ronald.

    I'll be out all day tomorrow, and won't be back till late, so I wanted to get my column comfortably up before I split.

    Re. your poor editorial experience, don't forget what we need accomplished.

    If your editor made a quantifiable mistake, you need to explain what you believe it was, in the context of the discussion.

    It doesn't matter that you got rewritten, it matters WHY you were rewritten...from his perspective and yours.

    I gave a laundry list of pros and at the very least "he didn't communicate his reasons; he just made the changes, showed them to me, and I (INSERT RESPONSE HERE, INCLUDING WHATEVER DISCUSSION FOLLOWED)."

    We do this, and we get a fuller picture of what happened.

    Otherwise, it's "poor, poor, Ronald; I hate that editor for what he did to you."

    I get that they wrote it and gave it back to you, but then your story gets fuzzy...and their expressed reasons, if any, are the answers to the mystery.

    Thanks, and I look forward to reading your expanded version.


  4. drgerb Guest

    I have very limited experience with editors, though I will relay a couple of them... My worst experience was with an editor who I pitched a short story to. The short story was working as a 'piece to the puzzle' of a hopeful anthology of stories that each relate to eachother, in a way, of presenting a 'bigger picture' or a theme not quite realizable on one of the short stories...

    Anyway. The editor didn't notice this, because I didn't relay it to him, and me not explaining the way each piece relates to eachother, I think certain parts of this particular short story didn't really work out. Because I also was banking on each short story working out A. alone as a short story published somewhere, and B. a piece of the bigger puzzle published together as an anthology. You have to look at the bigger picture, and you have to relay each and every one of your goals to the editor. Fill them in on what you're planning. Don't leave them in the dark.

    However one of my best experiences may have been with this editor too. He made me realize that. As much as I like to think he doesn't know what he's talking about (or used to think that), or he doesn't understand my stories... The truth is I didn't relay the entire story to him. And for me to plan a short story to A. stand alone on it's own, and B. be a piece to a bigger puzzle, I should undertstand what's required for both. A story is a story, beginning, middle, and end. You can't show an editor a small scene to a bigger story and expect them to understand everything. You have to fill them in on what it is, what's meant to happen, what leads to what, and all that. If it's supposed to work as a short story, you have to understand that and plan for it. Don't treat it like it's just a small scene to a bigger project, while not explaining you reasoning for anything. Bleh.

    I also have an awesome experience where I pitched a one line pitch to an editor, and he replied by asking me to elaborate. This is just after I wrote up a huge email that he basically killed, saying won't work, can't work, is bullshit, all of the above. Fair enough. I came back with a one line hook that took him. My problem is I can't elaborate on that first pitch. I don't know what parts to keep, what to leave in the background. But he loved the first pitch. And it soon hit a point where I hadn't replied, and he sent another message my way, reminding me that I hadn't replied yet. Which was cool... But when I did reply with more, I got shot down. Ouch.

    Not totally shot down, but more of a mutual agreement to part ways, and in the future, if time, money, and circumstances work out, we may work together again. Again? Or at some point.

    At the time I was also still in the dark. I looked at editors as failed writers. I looked at them like I looked at cornerbacks in the NFL. I remember a quote from somebody (maybe Michael Irvin?) that suggested all cornerbacks (who cover WR's) are just failed wide receivers. Cornerbacks are just wide receivers who can't catch. Fair enough analogy... Only sometimes. Not always. The catch, I think, is when you realize when an editor is an editor, and when he or she's just a failed writer. I guess that's also the wrong way to look at it... But I dunno.

    If you can figure out if the editor's on your same page to make the best possible project, maybe he's the right editor for the job. If he won't listen to you and you won't listen to him, chances are it's miscommunication, or lack of professionalism. If you can work around that, fine, and if not, find somebody else. I dunno.

    I guess, for me, the biggest point is to be on the same page as the editor. Which also somewhat jumps back to a previous article Lee did. Everybody understanding which way we're taking the project. If we all do, everybody's gonna do THEIR best job to make it the best project possible. And when you believe that, trust in your team, then the sky's the limit.

  5. Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Post Thanks / Like

    I've done a mere 3 published, and 3 more in the can, stories for actual comic companies (however small). The only experiences I've had with an editor were all voluntary. The companies themselves just left me to own devices. This was freeing, but left me with no judgment but my own as to how I was handling the task. So, I would from time to time, call on the editorial skills of a friend (oh, yeah, I'm naming him), our very own Steven Forbes.

    Forby is great because he not only tells you what works and what doesn't, but he tells you why. No simple, "Change this!". He also asks "what were going for here?" which is nice, even though I realize that if I had to explain what I was going for than I must not have gotten it.

    The first time I asked him for help, I read his response. I pouted for three days. Then I made (most of) the changes he'd suggested. Did I like what he said? No. Was he right? Yes. Could I admit that to myself? Three days later, yes.

    On my latest story, a crime noir piece I was commisioned to write for a new company, I had some doubts about pacing and words/images per panel. Forby laid my doubts to rest, while pointing out about three or four other areas that needed tweaking.

    Rewardingly, there was one spot of dialogue that made him ask (and I'm paraphrasing here) what are going for with this, because it makes him seem too smart for the street but to street for the office? And, I, with an ear to ear grin, replied, "that is EXACTLY what I was going for!"

    So, I haven't had that bad editor experience yet. But, I assure you, as soon as I do I'll be coming right back here to post it!
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  6. harryd Guest

    Well, so far my experience with comic editors, at least in the context I'm taking the original question, has pretty much been them never replying to submissions. My handful of published prose works were barely edited as well. One was sent back with some editing for grammar and space (and they added some new errors), and the others were likewise revised without even coming back to me at all. That was kind of annoying, but it's a tiny publisher and I didn't really expect a high degree of professionalism from them anyhow.

    I have also hired Steven Forbes to do some editing work on submissions, but I'm not sure it's exactly the same thing. He's not an editor working for a publisher assigned to work with you to produce something, not that he doesn't provide a similar service.

    Heh, so, I don't really have much to add in terms of stories. I'm not sure how many of the regular readers/posters will, since most of us are more intersted in trying to work on comics, rather than doing in professionally.

  7. LeeNordling Guest

    Hey, guys.

    An editor working for you is still an editor; the final decision simply lies elsewhere, but as it is with all editors, the role is different from situation to situation.

    Here's what I'd like you to do, even though it's good to read your individual stories: I'd like, after you've described both sides of each scenario, for you to describe a short list of what they and/or you did wrong...and right.

    Separate these assessments from the story, and cut to the chase.

    "He/she didn't tell me what he wanted, then criticized me for not doing whatever it is he didn't want."

    "He/she was clear about the goals."

    "I didn't tell him what I wanted the story to be."

    Each of these examples are specific examples of success and failure.

    As we discuss the contribution of editors, I hope, not unlike earlier discussions about writers and artists, you'll learn that it often takes two to tango...without pointing fingers and constructively showing you how to work defensively.

    But to do that, you need to isolate your specific successes and failures.

    Let's see if we can do that over the next couple days.


  8. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by harryd View Post
    I'm not sure how many of the regular readers/posters will, since most of us are more intersted in trying to work on comics, rather than doing in professionally.
    I get that, Harry, but also figure since this is Comics PRO Prep, I need to do my due diligence and work to help folks recognize and deal with editors who are and aren't very professional.

    Coming back to your situation with editors, were you annoyed that your submission got corrected for grammar, or that (in your assessment) some of the corrections were "wrong"?

    This is a great example of why it's important for you each to be more specific about the what editors did and didn't do.

    For example, I've sent back spelling and grammar corrections, without making any suggestions for how the rejected story could be better (though I always try to explain why I'm rejecting a story).

    The spelling and grammar corrections are usually considered to be a wake-up call to the writer: don't send in submissions with obvious mistakes in it. Sometimes they do and don't get the hint, but I don't want to go further than that, because it's not my business (as an editor) to train writers who don't know their craft.

    That's a view from the other side of the desk.

    Now, maybe the thing that upset you, Harry, was that the corrections were wrong...but were they ALL wrong?

    Did the editor's efforts to actually help you catch mistakes (even the ones where he/she was mistaken) totally miss with you?

    Here's something for each of you to remember: even when a bad editor gives advise, they are generally trying to help...even when they don't/can't.

    Yes, I do imagine some editors get a kick out of the "control," but they're still offering SOMEthing to help make you better, and that should be considered to.

    Let's hear more stories, and read some clearer delineation of the ones we're heard.

    Yes, there are ALWAYS corrections here at CPP.



  9. harryd Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post
    Coming back to your situation with editors, were you annoyed that your submission got corrected for grammar, or that (in your assessment) some of the corrections were "wrong"?
    It was also edited for space, and some of the corrections they made caused grammatical errors or created sentence fragments. They were trying to shorten it by a couple lines to fit in a magazine section, but by just cutting some parts, they created sentences that didn't make sense.

    Also, the part that annoyed me was with later submissions, they just made edits and published it without even bothering to come back to me. If they wanted a rewrite to cut it down a bit, or restructure, I would appreciate the chance to give it a second pass myself.

    I can understand wanting to have more of a discussion on what people think are good and bad traits of an editor, I was just saying in the context originally provided, I wasn't sure too many people would have 'stories' about working with good or bad editors.

    In that vein, and I know this has been said before, I think that a good editor is one that will explain why something needs to be changed, and not just say what needs to be changed. I think being open and communicative, on both sides of editing work, is a good trait. Those are the main two items that jump to mind right now, though I'm sure others will probably be able to come up with some other ideas.

  10. drgerb Guest

    I think being open and communicative, on both sides of editing work, is a good trait.
    I'm going to agree with harryd. The few experiences with editors I've had have been pretty good. When something works, they'd not only tell me that it works, but they'd say why. When something didn't work or make sense, they'd call me on it. Which was nice.

    I will also say that for me, there's a direct analogy between comics editors and teachers I've had. You might think you're smarter than some of your teachers, but in the end you have to just shut up and go with it, hoping for the best and trying to be communicative. Not only for their sake but for yours too. You also gotta be able to go into every class room hoping to learn something.

    I've had a lot of teachers, but very few who could openly express what it is they were trying to say, and also accept my criticism... Communication is key. Luckily, so far, my experiences have had enough communication to be considered pleasant experiences. I honeslty can't think of any more in depth examples. Bleh.

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